A Note on Reflection from Ana McCullough, QuestBridge CEO and Co-Founder

Quest students during Reflection Time in our original five-week summer program.

Michael McCullough and I founded Quest in 1994 as a residential summer program on the Stanford campus for 22 bright, low-income high school juniors. At that time, we had vivid memories of our high school and college years, as we were just finishing college ourselves. We believed college can be one of the best times in a person’s life – and one of the most important. It is also a time of much movement and transition. College felt like a great adventure at sea – with exciting ups and downs, new horizons, new challenges, and new discoveries with each passing week. The college application process marked the beginning of that great adventure.

Given this, when we created the original Quest summer program, we wanted to explore the idea of providing time, and a conducive environment, in which our students (high school rising seniors) and staff (college students, mostly Quest Scholar undergrads) could reflect on their lives during this tremendously important time. With “Reflection Time,” our job was to create a time and space where introspection and personal reflection could be explored, practiced, nurtured, and strengthened.

During Reflection Time, some students wrote in journals, others sat in contemplation or prayer, others read favorite texts, others sketched or painted, others played an instrument, others practiced yoga or martial arts, others danced. It was up to each individual to decide what was best for her or him. Reflection Time was an opportunity to slow down, rejuvenate, and quietly explore one’s deepest goals, hopes, and dreams.

Reflection Time at Quest became a daily activity that students and staff routinely called their favorite activity of the summer. Often, students would request, “please give us more Reflection Time!” in spite of our packed daily schedules.

One Quest Scholar wrote:

Reflection time is another of my favorite activities because it is so free. I can focus on anything I love to do… I can draw, color, write poetry, write in a diary, relax, and just think. Through reflection time, I am getting in touch with my inner self, the very core of my individuality. As I was sitting on the porch, gazing out onto the lake and up to the foothills, I felt a deep sense of inner peace. I chose to write a poem describing my emotions at that moment. The feeling of freedom that I had then is almost indescribable.

Many students continued their personal reflection practices even after leaving the five-week Quest summer program, and continued throughout their college years. They often would use this time to explore big questions, such as:

  • How can I creatively approach my college education?
  • What is my identity as a Quest Scholar? As a student on my college campus? As a member of my family? As a member of my community?
  • What professions will enable me to achieve all of my life goals – including my financial, family, community, and societal goals?
  • What does “learning” mean to me?
  • What does “being happy” mean to me?

Quest Scholars in those early days shared that, during Reflection Time, they could get underneath the surface waves of their college adventure, to reach a certain kind of calmness that lay beneath the waves. That is what reflection enables you to do – to “drop in” to the part of yourself that isn’t always moving so fast, and that knows what matters most to you. Every Quest Scholar has this depth.

The great thing about reflection is that it doesn’t inherently cost anything, and doesn’t necessarily require special equipment, a specific place, or other people. And even a short period of time – five or ten minutes per day – can be powerful, and longer periods even more so. What it does require is openness, authenticity, and compassion towards yourself just as you are – along with a working vision for where you would like to go, and who you would like to become. You have everything you need for reflection wherever you are, right here and now.

On the whole, in our original Quest summer program we learned that high school and college students can, and do, powerfully grow and thrive with this kind of time built in to their daily lives. Once our students and staff got into the swing of it, they loved (and guarded) the time, because of how much it enriched and rewarded them.

During this January reflection month, I encourage you to explore the idea of building your own form of reflection time into your lives, if you haven’t already. Even a short time per day can make a big difference. If you already have a reflection practice, please let us know if you have stories to share, or ideas for your fellow Quest Scholars to make reflection time as rewarding as possible.

Very best of luck to you as you embark on the second half of this academic year. Warmest wishes for 2015.

Ana McCullough, QuestBridge CEO and Co-Founder